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Restaurants offer too much of a bad thing

/ Source: The Associated Press

Those heaping portions at restaurants — and doggie bags for the leftovers — may be a thing of the past, if health officials get their way.

The government is trying to enlist the help of the nation’s eateries in fighting obesity. One of the first things on their list: cutting portion sizes.

With burgers, fries and pizza the Top 3 eating-out favorites in this country, restaurants are in a prime position to help improve people’s diets and combat obesity. At least that’s what is recommended in a government-commissioned report released Friday.

The report, requested and funded by the Food and Drug Administration, lays out ways to help people manage their intake of calories from the growing number of meals prepared away from home, including at the nation’s nearly 900,000 restaurants and other establishments that serve food.

“We must take a serious look at the impact these foods are having on our waistlines,” said Penelope Slade Royall, director of the health promotion office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The 136-page report prepared by The Keystone Center, an education and public group based in Keystone, Colo., said Americans now consume fully one-third of their daily intake of calories outside the home. And as of 2000, the average American took in 300 more calories a day than was the case 15 years earlier, according to Agriculture Department statistics cited in the report.

Today, 64 percent of Americans are overweight, including the 30 percent who are obese, according to the report. It pegs the annual medical cost of the problem at nearly $93 billion.

Consumer advocates increasingly have heaped some of the blame on restaurant chains like McDonald’s, which bristles at the criticism while offering more salads and fruit. The report does not explicitly link dining out with the rising tide of obesity, but does cite numerous studies that suggest there is a connection.

The National Restaurant Association said the report, which it helped prepare but does not support, unfairly targeted its industry.

The report encourages restaurants to shift the emphasis of their marketing to lower-calorie choices, and include more such options on menus. In addition, restaurants could jigger portion sizes and the variety of foods available in mixed dishes to cut calories.

Bundling meals with more fruits and vegetables also could help. And letting consumers know how many calories are contained in a meal also could guide the choices they make, according to the report.

Make a better choice

Simeon Holston, 33, called more disclosure an excellent idea as he lunched on a sausage-and-pepperoni pizza at a downtown Washington food court.

“OK, I am going to eat junk food regardless, but let me eat the junk food that’s going to cause me less damage,” said Holston, an accountant. “A lot of times, presented with information, you will make a better choice.”

Just over half of the nation’s 287 largest restaurant chains now make at least some nutrition information available, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“If companies don’t tell them, people have no way of knowing how many calories they are being served at restaurants. And chances are, they are being served a lot more than they realize,” said Wootan, adding that Congress should give the FDA the authority to require such disclosure.

Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, the agency’s acting head, said the only place where he has seen calorie information listed on a menu was at an upscale restaurant in California. Still, the agency will not seek the authority to force others to follow suit, he said.

“At this point in time, it’s not a matter of more authority, it’s using the authority we have,” von Eschenbach said.

The report notes that the laboratory work needed to calculate the calorie content of a menu item can cost $100, or anywhere from $11,500 to $46,000 to analyze an entire menu.

That cost makes it unfeasible for restaurants, especially when menus can change daily, said Sheila Cohn, director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association.

Instead, restaurants increasingly are offering varied portion sizes, foods made with whole grains, more diet drinks and entree salads to fit the dietary needs of customers, Cohn said. Still, they can’t make people eat what they won’t order, she added.

When Americans dined out in 2005, the leading menu choices remained hamburgers, french fries and pizza, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm. The presumably healthier option of a side salad was the No. 4 choice for women, but No. 5 for men, according to the eating pattern study.